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Khalid Mohamed cuts back to a conversation with Yash Chopra, the monarch of romancing the movies.

Yash Chopra

Imagine, Yash Chopra, his wife Pam, trusty cinematographer Manmohan Sigh and I in a helicopter, hovering over a fairy tale-like castle in Scotland.


No fantasy that. The British Tourism Board, its India branch under the able stewardship of Prem Subramaniam, had organized a week-long recce trip to Scotland, to display the locations there for Yash Chopra to perhaps film his subsequent films. He was more partial as you know to Switzerland and London, U.K.


In Switzerland, at the swishy Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel and Spa OF Interlaken, a  cinema-themed suite was named after Yash Chopra in 2011. Lake Lauenen, in the Canton of Berne, has been called Lake Chopra since  2023.


 I was on the Scotland recce to report on my take, not that it mattered. The gorgeous castles, the beauty of Inverness and Edinburgh cities, the Lake of the Loch Ness Monster and the Scotch whisky distilleries were not lost on the filmmaker, wife Pam and Manji. As I took copious notes, Chopra whispered into my ear, “Just enjoy yourself, consider this a holiday, Ghar lautne ke baad mujhe interview kar lena.”



It would be as facile to say that right till the end of the opening years of the new millennium, Yash Chopra (1932-2012) was the monarch of Indian film entertainment, as every sea has a shoreline. Right at the forefront of the Bollywood royalty, he wore his crown with self-effacement. He remained unchanged, come successes, disappointments, also-rans and blockbusters, has active career spanning from 1959 to 2012.


Over, now to that promised interview, a belated one as it happened, since he would be enmeshed in work 24x7x12. On a drizzly afternoon at his sprawling Yash Raj studio at Oshiwara, he was in his office, close to the size of a stadium. The studio has been stylishly constructed, equipped with state-of-the-art equipment and commodious studio lots, built with vision and concealed pride. During the ultimate lap of his marathon career, practically every Yash Raj film made it to the top of the box office charts, a feat which during the director’s autumn years had doubtlessly been piloted by his reclusive son and filmmaker Aditya.


Almost every award of some value was on the office mantelpiece. Companionable as ever, the  auteur had laughed, “After crossing well over 70, one has to slow down and depend on the next generation”, called for a sandwich lunch which arrived wrapped in silver foil, and answered every question with sobriety.

Excerpts for our conversation:


You’ve been seeing great times in the last few years. Would you agree that this is your peak period?


How can I say that I’m at my peak? That would amount to bragging, wouldn’t it? All I can say is that we have been working tirelessly. We have been making quite a few films and they have done big business. The collections of Fanaa went beyond our expectations. Kabul Express, did just about okay. Thankfully, Dhoom 2 clicked, thanks to the pairing of Hritihik Roshan with Aishwarya Rai. Their screen chemistry was amazing.


Reportedly Neal `n’ Nikki, with Uday Chopra in the lead, didn’t do too well at the cash counters, but ended up making some money. Right?


Not really. It didn’t bring its money back; in fact we ended up making a little loss. But no regrets, we learn from our mistakes.


Most of the films you touch seems to turn into gold. Would you ascribe this to luck?


I know this is the talk in the industry but I don’t deserve all the credit for the success. I cannot undermine the hard work of our different, directors who come with a fresh approach. And of course, there are God’s blessings.


Is there any one God you believe in?


I respect all religions. Recently I went to Amritsar’s Golden Temple and it was a soul-stirring experience. I believe in all the principles of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Isais.. sirf roop badaltey rehte hain. If I pray at the Siddhi Vinayak temple, I also pray at Ajmer Sharif, the Mount Mary and Mahim churches. I believe there is someone up there who is looking after us.


Pam and I haven’t forced any religion or beliefs on our sons. There may be a generation gap between us but I think we are in agreement that faith is on our hearts. All my life, I’ve tried to be as pure-hearted as possible. I don’t drink alcohol, smoke or even have tea. Ha, remember I didn’t even touch a drop of whisky in Scotland. I may have raised a toast with a glass of wine or champagne on a couple of occasions, but by doing that I haven’t become a drinker..or corrupted.


There was a time when your films weren’t purely romantic..they dealt with social issues. Was there any reason for shifting gears to strictly escapist cinema?


I have never shifted gears totally. Veer-Zaara has a social did Daag which looked into the morality of a man with two wives. I come from the school of  bhaisaab (elder brother BR Chopra) who dealt with so many social issues from widow remarriage to securing justice for rape victims.


To convey a message, I don’t have to be preachy. But yes with time, I have tried to make mainly clean romantic movies. What can one say otherwise..stale things like politicians are the root of the problems of our country?


After your impactful debut as a director with Dhool ka Phool – about a single mother -- I’ve often felt that when your second film Dharmputra – about the need for communal harmony after the Partition – bombed at the box office, you were disheartened and moved on to fantasticated romances.


It was like this, my family had been adamant that I should become an engineer. I overcame that by being refusing stubbornly. Dhool ka Phool was a hit but I was still on test. So, of course, I was disheartened by the failure of Dharmputra..but then I was as disheartened by the failure of Lamhe, which was romantic. I had a right to feel bad. After Lamhe didn’t click, I couldn’t work for six months. Anyway, I’ve never believed in striking up a huge quantity of work. I direct a film when something inside tells me to. Perhaps my failures were ahead of their times. Otherwise, how can you explain the fact that the highest sales of my DVDs have been of Dharmputra, Silisila and Lamhe?


Audience responses have always been unpredictable and always will be. Moreover, there have been supportive, encouraging words which mean so much more than money. When our banner’s Fanaa (directed by Kunal Kohli) had just been released. Mufti Mohammad Sayeed (former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir) rang me up to say that with Veer-Zaara and Fanaa, I had made progressive points about Indo-Pak relations. Fanaa, he said, was a strong statement for patriotism and against terrorism. A woman kills her husband in the national interest. While retaining such elements in our Yash Raj films, we have also made 100 per cent pure entertainers like Hum Tum and Salaam Namaste.


Of the 21 films you have directed so far, are there any which you feel dissatisfied with?


(Pauses) Maybe Parampara and Joshila..kahin kuchh kami reh gayee. I was trying to cater to the producers, not the audience. Gulshan Rai had just produced the huge hit Johnny Mera Naam with Vijay Anand. I wanted Joshila to be as big a hit for him and that’s where I went wrong.


Daag and Joshila were released within a month of each other. The censor chief then, Virendra Vyas, said see, you’ve stuffed all the masalas in Joshila and it has been rejected outright ..while Daag has worked because it has a heart, you’ve made it according to your own sensibilities.


Sharmila Tagore, Rajesh Khanna & Rakhee Gulzar in Daag

Wasn’t the story of Daag ‘inspired’ by Thomas Hardy’s novel The Mayor of Casterbridge?


Was it? The story was written by Gulshan Nanda, who was extremely popular then. I have no idea about The Mayor of Casterbridge.


How did you cope with the near-eclipse of your banner following the flop of Faasle?


Ups and downs are inevitable. Yes, I did have to struggle to keep going. While I was making Chandni, I was travelling one day from my house in Juhu to the Taj Mahal Hotel in town. On the way, I saw every movie hoarding and poster had highlighted heroes with guns, pistols, daggers. I asked myself, “Am I in touch with the times?” What’s going on here?


I tried to incorporate action in Chandni. But when Mangesh Desai (sound designer) and I were watching the rushes, he stopped a reel on the introduction of Vinod Khanna who made an action-packed entry. Mangesh said, “Yash, have you gone crazy? This looks absurd.”


So, I asked Vinod Khanna for one day of reshooting. He made a very normal entry. The distributor, Khazanchi Films, objected, “If you’ve got Vinod Khanna there must be action.” I told him that he could back out. Then he haggled for a price reduction. When the film released, he asked for five extra prints immediately and had the courtesy to say, “I made a mistake, you were absolutely right.” To date we have maintained a cordial business relationship.


According to the grapevine, you were so unsure about the commercial prospects of Chandni that you were about to sign a contract with T-Series to direct one-hour TV episodes for them?


What! Not at all. T-Series merely acquired the video rights of Chandni and that’s it. This story must be a figment of someone’s very fertile imagination. I’ve tried to survive every crisis. Lamhe hadn’t done well, and so when Chandni was ready, the Delhi distributor complained, “The music is disappointing.” Immediately, I sent him his cheque back. I had complete faith in the music,

Rishi Kapoor, Sridevi & Vinod Khanna in Chandni

How come you have never been given sufficient credit for Deewaar?


See, the script by Salim-Javed became its talking point. They had raised the bar of the importance of scriptwriters. In his interviews, Amitabh Bachchan also gave them major credit for his lifetime of a performance. I was okay with that, after all every film is a team effort. And as you might know, I’ve never blown my own trumpet.


How do you keep discovering music composers and then move on to others?

I find out which composer suits a particular film best. And there is our peronsal contribution to the music also. We have worked with Khayyam saab, Shiv Hari, Dilip and Sameer Sen, Uttam Singh and of late, Ehsaan-Shankar-Loy and Vishal-Shekhar. Hridaynath Mangeshkar’s score for Mashaal had one or two brilliant songs (Zindagi Aa Raha Hoon, Mujhe Tum Yaad Karna) which didn’t get the attention they deserved.


For Veer-Zara we had tried out Adnan Sami and then Uttam Singh but..I wasn’t happy. That’s when my CEO, Sanjeev Kohli, said there were hundreds of tunes of his father Madan Mohan with him; at least 20 of them went well with the film’s theme. Not a note of the original tune of Tere Liye was changed and Lataji (Mangeshkar), at the age of 75, sang it so beautifully


Uttam Singh composed a very popular score for Dil Toh Pagal Hai, never to be heard of again.


Before Dil Toh Pagal Hai, we had contacted him to do the music for a series of TV episodes to be directed by Vinod Pandey. Uttam  is an excellent music arranger, he came up with several tunes which we felt would be wasted on TV.


I asked him to hang on, finesse his tunes and think of some more within the next six months, without making any promises. When the script of Dil Toh Paagal Hai was finalised, he gave us the tunes which we thought were perfect for the project. Anand Bakshi was also very inspired by the tunes and came up with young and peppy lyrics. Since then, we’ve worked with Uttam Singh on a private album.


Which film projects are you contemplating now?


I have a certain script idea. But Adi (Aditya) will go on the floors before me, this year. He’s been looking after the creative side of the films very closely..but I do think he has to get back to’s been four years since Mohabbatein.


You have mostly worked with established stars though you could have created your own stars. Right?


(Pause) Poonam Dhillon (Noorie) ,Sonam (Vijay) and Tulip Joshi (Mujhse Dosti Karogi) were introduced by us. Saif (Ali Khan) had his first solo hit (Hum Tum) with us. Abhishek Bachchan also with Dhoom. It’s not as if we’re allergic to newcomers. The moment I’d seen Abhishek at his sister Shweta’s marriage, I knew he would be a star. Actually, we wanted to take the entire cast of Veer-Zaara from Pakistan but this idea wasn’t practical.


Which actor have you felt the closest affinity to?


Amitabh Bachchan..there has been a great tuning with him right from the Kabhi Kabhie,Deewaar and Trishul days. When I needed him for a few days work in Veer-Zaara, he said yes even without asking for a narration of his role. And Shah Rukh Khan is my jaan, he is family, he  did Veer-Zaara, no questions asked.


Amitabh Bachchan & Rekha in Silsila

There was some talk about you signing Salman Khan for a Yash Raj film.


Adi spoke to him for a film to be directed by Shimit Amin, but it didn’t work out. Shah Rukh did that film (Chak De! India), he liked the script, and our home production is his like his own.


Why hasn’t Akshay Kumar ever been cast by you since Yeh Dillagi and a guest appearance in Dil Toh Paagal Hai? Now, he may be in your production Tashan. Has there been some problem over the fee paid to him?


I like Akshay Kumar, he’s a hard-working and successful actor. As for money, there can be no problem at all. Once a star’s fee is settled, that’s it. Amitji and Shah Rukh have never asked us about what they will be paid, they say, “Whatever you think is fine by us.”


Let me tell you, I believe in an emotional connect. I went to meet (lyricist-poet) Sahir Ladhianvi saab when I was a student, and that meeting developed into an everlasting friendship. He would not charge me a single rupee till a film was released. If the film succeeded, he would be glad with the cheque I sent him. And with Lataji, my relationship has been of a sister and brother.


Are there any actors you feel you have missed out on working with?


Nargis, Nutan, Madhubala and Meena Kumari. I would watch Meenaji when I was an assistant director on bhaisaab’s Ek Hi Raasta. Believe me, they don’t make them like her anymore.


You seem to be quite a sentimentalist. So why isn’t your loyal cinematographer, Manmohan Singh, shooting your films anymore?


Manji is a nice, sharif, chup chaap sort.When I was planning Veer-Zaara, Manji was to direct his second Punjabi film. He has become a very successful director. Fortunately, Anil Mehta was free at the time to shoot Veer-Zaara.


Your brother Dharam was also a very able cinematographer. How come very little is  known about him?


He worked with bhaisaab regularly, and he passed away at the age of 78.. We were six brothers, four have survived.After Aadmi aur Insaan and Ittefaq, I had branched out…from

bhaisaab. Dharam bhai’s assistant Kay Gee shot Daag. After he passed away, Manji shot my films. I had liked his work in Betaab immensely.


Are there any unrealized projects, any scripts lying in the vaults?


Before starting Veer-Zaara, everything was set for Maine Toh Mohabbat Ki Hai, but then Adi showed me three scenes he had written on an entirely different subject. Those three scenes were so good that we had to develop them right away, the result was Veer-Zaara.


My next film will be the script I had kept aside, but after a three-year gap it has to be updated, several subtractions and additions are needed (this culminated in Jab Tak Hai Jaan). My scripts develop after tossing around ideas and endless discussions. Since I’m not computer savvy, they have to be written down by others.


I believe you write poems when the mood seizes you.


I do, yes but they are for private consumption. I’m a lonely poet, I don’t share my verses with anyone else. I’ve heard of bathroom singers, but I’m not even a bathroom poet.


Now tell me, why is Adi so reclusive?


(Laughs) Some have even asked me if Adi exists at all. Jokes aside, Adi has made his own space. He’s not a partyman, he’s obsessed with films, and works from 9 am to 9 pm. Karan (Johar) is his only friend.


Personality wise, they are poles apart but both are my sons. When I see them, I tell myself, “They were kids yesterday and are such intelligent adults today.”


Whenever I tell Adi to be more outgoing, he says, “I am what I am, I can’t change.” He is very sensitive and very stubborn. Actually, I think Adi, Karan and Sooraj Barjatya are better filmmakers than me. They are directors who conceive their own stories, scripts and dialogue, work out the publicity and stay with it till the day of the release and even after that.


About Adi, I must tell you that he has always been into storytelling. When he was a kid, he shocked Shabana Azmi. He narrated an entire story to her – complete with the beginning, middle and end. She still reminds me, “My god, Yashji, your son is something else.”


And how has Uday done?


Uday is a mastikhor, I didn’t want to write his career. It is up to him follow his instincts. I didn’t know we had an actor in the house till he told me he wanted to act before Mohabbatein was scripted. Tomorrow, he may also want to produce or even direct films which is fine by me.


At this stage of your life and career, is becoming a grandfather your most intense desire?


 Yes, I would love to become  a dada.


How would you summarise the role of your wife?


Pam has been an ideal companion and mother. She’s in charge of everything in the house whether it’s a glass of water or the menu of our meals. She is into folk music and has been an important contributor to our music scores.


The first time I saw her was at the wedding of my niece Shashi in Delhi. She had come with Simi Garewal and had sung at the ceremony. Romesh Sharma’s mother was our match-maker. On our second meeting, Pam and I didn’t even like each other. I has always been teased about my crush on Mumtaz, my sons still do. Maybe I was fascinated while I was directing Aadmi Aur Insaan produced by bhaisaab.


Anyway some days later, I had missed a flight out of Delhi, so I had stayed over at the Sharma house in Diplomatic Enclave. Romesh’s mother said, “Make up your mind or do you want to die a bachelor?” I was 38 then, I said, “Yes, if it’s okay by her.” A month later we were engaged, two months later hamari shaadi ho gayee.


Meaning if it wasn’t for a missed flight, there would have been no Yash Raj banner?


Yes, I’ve thought of that hota hai manzoor-e-Khuda hota hai.


Once, you had told me that you are an “emotional fool.” Do you still stick by that statement?


Absolutely. I’m an emotional..bloody..fool, and very proud of it. I can never say never, I can’t say no to anyone. To  date, I have never sacked anyone who has been employed by me. If they want to move on to greener pastures, it’s their choice. Otherwise, I’m always there, my heart is their home.


 Khalid Mohamed is a Mumbai based film critic, screenwriter, film producer &director

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